Wednesday, 29 February 2012

'Vote for Me, It's Like Losing Your Virginity'

Does anyone else remember 'Tarrant on TV'?  For those whose memories of Chris Tarrant only go back as far as Who Wants to Be a Millionaire or the tabloid pictures of him being kicked out of his mansion by his furious ex-wife for having it away with a youthful TV researcher, he used to have a show where risque TV adverts from around the world were shown for comedy effect.

Of course, away from the stiff upper lips of flaccid grey Britain, adverts full of innuendo are used for party political broadcast purposes.  In Russia, Vladimir Putin's ruling party have released the following video that compares a young female voter's decision to vote for Putin for the first time with her decision to lose her virginity.

Am I alone in finding this sort of thing slightly sinister? I suppose that people who complain that living in the digital world means that your children are sexualised before the appropriate age will now at least find that they become democratically inclined as well, even if the vote itself is less than democratic.

Still, there's a part of me that would respect an advert for the Conservative Party that ran with the honest slogan - 'Vote for David Cameron, he'll screw the NHS!'

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Workfare, or 'Work Unfair'

You know that the Tory ministers - they of the rolling Oxfordshire estates, of trust funds and the Bullingdon Club - are getting desperate about flagship policy when they resort to calling those who oppose them 'snobs'.

The JobHits website posted an ad last week that showed that Tesco are in the process of taking advantage of that same government policy, which is known as Workfare. Under the terms of the policy, people are asked to work for six weeks at Tesco or other similar employers 'to gain work experience', but without being paid or with any guarantee of a job at the end.

The irony of the situation should not be lost on the British public. Until a change of law under the coalition government, taking unpaid work experience could actually result in you losing your benefits. Employment minister Chris Grayling was quick to accuse as 'hypocritical' those same organisations who were attacking the policy, such as the Guardian newspaper and the BBC, who were themselves signing people up for unpaid work experience.

Now, there are a number of problems here.

Yes, the scheme is supposedly voluntary, but a number of people have supposedly been told that unless they participate in the government's Mandatory Work Activity programme, they will lose their right to benefits entirely.

This is hardly the supportive approach that will be required to help those who have been out of work for long periods to regain their self-confidence. Also, it must be a terrifying prospect for those disabled people who face virtually-discredited ATOS disability evaluations to think that as well as being accused of being malingerers, they might be forced from their sick beds to work for three months in a work placement without pay or left to starve.

Tesco are trying to fly below the radar of angry opposition, claiming they never would have become involved with the scheme if it had been mandatory. The question I would ask them is: why get involved at all? Tesco face flak regularly from a number of quarters; they are supposedly anti-union, their contracts ban workers from discussing their terms and conditions with others and their minimum wage contracts mean that workers regularly require state benefit top-ups just to allow them to survive.

Regardless of your feelings about them, it should be remembered that Tesco are a fabulously successful business and a UK business success story on the world stage. They are reputedly the second biggest supermarket chain in the world based on total profits earned but they cannot avoid the negative PR that comes with their position.

Tesco are seeing falling market share in the UK and that is affecting their profit figures, but there is no reason why they cannot afford to pay the Workfare staff an equivalent wage to their other workers. More to the point, there is no reason why they cannot pay their current staff a living wage, and seeing as their position on the matter of their low wages is uniformly 'we comply with minimum wage legislation', it is clear that this will have to be the route by which a responsible government forces their hand. Of course, to do so would see unemployment jump again, and we know that this will not be a position that our government adopts. What is clear that is the taxpayer should certainly not be subsidising a successful business by paying people benefits so Tesco gets their labour for free.

And I'm sick of making this point, but only because nothing ever moves on the issue - why oh why is the coalition government not attacking financial sector speculators with the same iron fist it reserves exclusively for the poor and downtrodden? Whey are we not pushing for the financial transaction tax that seemingly everyone else in Europe wants to put in place but us? The only reason that our government is against it can surely be that those same irresponsible millionaires who were shored up by successive failing governments now stand ready to defend the government that looks after their interests.

That same government also has to accept responsibility for the unemployment figures in the first place. The private sector has not stood up and filled the gap left by hundreds of thousands of public sector redundancies. Regardless of your feelings about the public sector, would you rather they were working for you or being paid benefits for doing nothing? Perhaps the decision to force them to do non-jobs for free in Tesco is a logical continuation of the government's chronic dislike of public sector employment. Regardless, that doesn't mean that it's a policy that makes sense.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

My Old Master

The following amazing letter by an emancipated slave to his former owner has gone viral on the internet since it was first published on cult website Letters of Note earlier this week. I heartily encourage you to read this and to visit the site for more wonderful missives.

Past times: The letter

Dayton, Ohio,

7 August, 1865

To My Old Master, Colonel PH Anderson, Big Spring, Tennessee


I got your letter, and was glad to find that you had not forgotten Jourdon, and that you wanted me to come back and live with you again, promising to do better for me than anybody else can. I have often felt uneasy about you. I thought the Yankees would have hung you long before this, for harboring Rebs they found at your house. I suppose they never heard about your going to Colonel Martin's to kill the Union soldier that was left by his company in their stable. Although you shot at me twice before I left you, I did not want to hear of your being hurt, and am glad you are still living. It would do me good to go back to the dear old home again, and see Miss Mary and Miss Martha and Allen, Esther, Green, and Lee. Give my love to them all, and tell them I hope we will meet in the better world, if not in this. I would have gone back to see you all when I was working in the Nashville Hospital, but one of the neighbors told me that Henry intended to shoot me if he ever got a chance.

I want to know particularly what the good chance is you propose to give me. I am doing tolerably well here. I get twenty-five dollars a month, with victuals and clothing; have a comfortable home for Mandy – the folks call her Mrs Anderson – and the children – Milly, Jane, and Grundy – go to school and are learning well. The teacher says Grundy has a head for a preacher. They go to Sunday school, and Mandy and me attend church regularly. We are kindly treated. Sometimes we overhear others saying "Them colored people were slaves" down in Tennessee. The children feel hurt when they hear such remarks; but I tell them it was no disgrace in Tennessee to belong to Colonel Anderson. Many darkeys would have been proud, as I used to be, to call you master. Now if you will write and say what wages you will give me, I will be better able to decide whether it would be to my advantage to move back again.

As to my freedom, which you say I can have, there is nothing to be gained on that score, as I got my free papers in 1864 from the Provost-Marshal-General of the Department of Nashville. Mandy says she would be afraid to go back without some proof that you were disposed to treat us justly and kindly; and we have concluded to test your sincerity by asking you to send us our wages for the time we served you. This will make us forget and forgive old scores, and rely on your justice and friendship in the future. I served you faithfully for thirty-two years, and Mandy twenty years. At twenty-five dollars a month for me, and two dollars a week for Mandy, our earnings would amount to eleven thousand six hundred and eighty dollars. Add to this the interest for the time our wages have been kept back, and deduct what you paid for our clothing, and three doctor's visits to me, and pulling a tooth for Mandy, and the balance will show what we are in justice entitled to. Please send the money by Adams's Express, in care of V Winters, Esq, Dayton, Ohio. If you fail to pay us for faithful labors in the past, we can have little faith in your promises in the future. We trust the good Maker has opened your eyes to the wrongs which you and your fathers have done to me and my fathers, in making us toil for you for generations without recompense. Here I draw my wages every Saturday night; but in Tennessee there was never any pay-day for the negroes any more than for the horses and cows. Surely there will be a day of reckoning for those who defraud the laborer of his hire.

In answering this letter, please state if there would be any safety for my Milly and Jane, who are now grown up, and both good-looking girls. You know how it was with poor Matilda and Catherine. I would rather stay here and starve – and die, if it come to that – than have my girls brought to shame by the violence and wickedness of their young masters. You will also please state if there has been any schools opened for the colored children in your neighborhood. The great desire of my life now is to give my children an education, and have them form virtuous habits.

Say howdy to George Carter, and thank him for taking the pistol from you when you were shooting at me.

From your old servant,

Jourdon Anderson

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

The £10m Gesture

I have to admit, I've never met a banker socially, but I like to think that despite their current position as collective national pariahs and convenient scapegoat for neoliberal politics, bankers are human somewhere. I watched Stephen Hester at Royal Bank of Scotland reluctantly forego millions of pounds in bonuses with a degree of grim satisfaction but while seeing Fred 'the Shred' Goodwin stripped of his knighthood is mildly amusing, seeing him occupying press columns next to luminaries who have suffered a similar fate - Robert Mugabe and Nicolae Ceasescu are two prominent ones - is slightly disturbing. Odious they may be, and indirectly responsible for much misery, but bankers are not in the same category as those responsible for genocide.

So put yourself in a banker's shoes - do you take the bonus, or not? I serve the public and so in my current role, bonuses are not an option. If they were, I would snap them off at the wrist. But then, I don't receive a six-figure salary offered, so maybe I would feel differently if I did. I'm tempted to suggest that enough is now enough - the triumphalism surrounding the humbling of individual bankers sickens me as much as the bankers themselves, and I feel the time has come to stop focusing on individuals and start dismantling the culture that surrounds executive pay in this country.

Fortunately, there are still others out there who very much believe in sharing the wealth, and Australian transport tycoon Ken Grenda is clearly one of those.

Mr Grenda sold his bus company to rival outfit Ventura this week for an unspecified sum. Immediately following the sale, the company announced that its employees would each receive a share of the proceeds based on length of service. According to the Australian news outlet Herald Sun, the total sum of payouts is worth £10 million, with some individual payments worth over £100,000.

So here's an idea that would put the cat among the media pigeons - rather than shelling out £2m to Stephen Hester, who clearly won't be losing sleep over it - how about dispensing it instead to the low-paid employees at RBS, where it might actually go to use stimulating our economy?